Tom finds dishes that approach perfection at a new Japanese restaurant that is worth the wait.
Pure and pristine. Two words that encapsulate Maru, a new omakase (or ‘we do the choosing, mate’) restaurant hidden away in the back streets of Mayfair’s Shepherd Market. It’s there in the six seats at the immaculate blonde wood bar; the gleaming fridges, where various cuts of fish are artfully dry-aged to intensify their taste; the ceramics, cool and austere, many made by chef proprietor Taiji Maruyama; his flashing blades, and the economy with which he wields them. Even his hair, thick and glossy, piled high on his head.
And the food, too. Pretty much everything is sourced in the United Kingdom, with the obvious exception of the tuna. But Maruyama manages to coax, tease, flatter and cajole the most remarkable flavours out of every single course. All 20 of them. Many are no more than a mouthful of nigiri sushi, passed over the counter from his hand to mine; a lozenge of otoro, the fattiest part of the tuna belly, the rice warm and whisperingly vinegared, each grain plump and fecund, the fish deliriously rich.
‘Five-day ice-bath-aged cuttlefish and Exmoor caviar nigiri’ is richer still, like Poseidon’s roar, a stirring symphony of piscine tastes and textures; sea urchin (from Iceland) that combines lascivious filth with perfumed poise; the startling purity of the Cornish ‘red vinegar cure’ mackerel. And a ‘nine-day dry-aged Balfego tuna tamaki’, all crisp smoky nori, soft rice and cool, profoundly flavoured flesh of the deepest red.
It’s not just raw fish. There’s a neat pile of Cornish king crab, sweet as young love, entangled in a brown meat jelly that intensifies that crustacean allure. Clear cockle clam soup has a whisper of fennel, and a gasp of pepper. Lobster and summer truffle ‘chawan mushi’ custard is so light it almost floats. Yet still growls with umami depth.
All this joy comes at a price. £170 per head, to be precise, plus an extra £85 for the excellent sake pairings. We had to book months in advance (well, my friend Giles did), and sit down to dinner at 5.30pm. There is a later sitting at 8.30pm. It’s not the place for our usual scurrilous gossip either.
Still, in a town where people will pay £850 for a hunk of cow wrapped in gold foil, served up by a human salt cellar, Maru doesn’t just offer value. It offers joy, inspiration and pure culinary art.
Maru, 18 Shepherd Market, London W1; marulondon.com.
DRINKS: Olly’s Halloween fizz
I’ve always found Halloween about as much fun as bunion surgery: too much noise, lurid novelty tat and grown-ups being weird. So instead, I am declaring it a festival of fizz. I shall be popping corks from around the world and embracing the party spirit in my own way. By the time all the early evening nonsense has passed, the proper party can kick in and we can all join in a kitchen disco.
WINE OF THE WEEK: VEUVE MONSIGNY BRUT NV (12.5%), £13.49, Aldi. Stunning value for a rich zinger to turn fright night into fun central.
PIZZOLATO ORGANIC & VEGAN PROSECCO NV (11%), £10, Co-Op. Vitality and fun abound. A zesty bubbly that doesn’t break the bank.
CAVE DE LUGNY CRÉMANT DE BOURGOGNE BLANC DE BLANCS NV (11.5%), £13.99, Waitrose. White peach brilliance with a savoury stratum, this is a hidden gem of joy.
BLACK CHALK CLASSIC 2017 (12%), £34, The Wine Society. Precise as a lemon bull’s-eye on the dartboard of dreams, this is sharp English splendour.
CHAMPAGNE DELAMOTTE BLANC DE BLANCS NV (12%), £50.95, corneyandbarrow.com. My inside tip for top Champagne to experience the ultimate in fine, elegant fizz.